If I obey Jesus Christ in the seemingly random circumstances of life, they become pinholes through I see the face of God.
– Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest
The word obedience does not carry a very positive connotation for me. In my youth I was told to brush my teeth, finish my vegetables, and do my homework. As I have gotten older the list has changed: get your yearly physical, get your income taxes in on time, and do your expense report at work.
However, the thoughts or images “obedience” conjures up are still just as negative. Obedience often means doing what’s necessary, but not fun. By the time we all reach adulthood, we have been heavily programmed to think of obedience as unpleasant but necessary.
This programming brings a cold-shower, white-knuckle concept of obedience into our daily Christian walk. A negative attitude towards obedience often manifests itself in two extremes that theologians call legalism and antinomianism.
Legalism is defined as any attempt to rely on self-effort to either attain or maintain our just standing before God instead of grace. Tim Keller often calls it “Religion,” and defines it this way: “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” This approach to obedience is exemplified by the older brother in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. This white knuckled approach to the Christian life robs us of the joy God intended and leads to a hard self-righteousness.
At the other extreme is antinomianism, the idea that because God is gracious and forgiveness is a free gift, obedience to God just doesn’t matter. We can live our lives however we want, believing that there is no place for God’s law in the life of a Christian. Antinomianism leads to a low view of sin and therefore a low view of grace. It goes against much of what is written in the scripture.
In a previous blog I suggested that avoiding sin and embracing obedience to the teaching of God’s law in the scriptures is in the Christian’s own best interest. How do we live this way while avoiding the dangers of legalism and antinomianism?
The answer is only found in the Gospel. Our obedience must flow from our relationship with Christ. As Tullian Tchividjian explains on The Gospel Coalition blog,
…sustained obedience can only come from the grace which flows from what Jesus has already done, not guilt or fear of what we must do…those who end up obeying more are those who increasingly realize that their standing with God is not based on their obedience, but Christ’s.
In other words, we do not produce fruit to be able to get into the True Vine (John 15). We produce fruit because we are already in the True Vine, having been placed there by God alone, not by our own works.
Our love of God and gratitude for what he has done for us should be the motivation that drives us to obey his call in every sphere of our lives. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote,
Love is not just a sentiment. Love is a great controlling passion and it always expresses itself in terms of obedience.
This is why the Apostle James can write that faith begins by hearing about God and Jesus Christ and believing certain things about them. However, a faith that saves you is a faith that goes beyond just hearing and believing. You must have a faith that trusts and obeys God. Even the demons fear and believe in God. Faith without works is dead, as James declares in James 2:14-19.
So what does obedience have to do with work? We’ve talked a lot about how Christians should approach work that is less-than-fulfilling. It’s easier said than done, but being obedient to God involves a desire to honor and obey him even if we’re partaking in difficult work, work whose value to the kingdom might not be immediately apparent to us.
Chuck Colson once wrote for Breakpoint,
Knowing that we are fulfilling God’s purpose is the only thing that really gives rest to the restless human heart.
We gain that knowledge by small steps of obedience in even the most mundane acts of our lives, including our work.
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